25 May 2011

In retrospect, the experiences of the last five decades don’t mesh well with the idea of conversion that I held for most of my life.  A good Baptist can  tell you the day and maybe the hour that he got saved, but it’s been a path that I have walked (or walked away from) for as long as I can recollect.  Dad broke it down plainly for me at about nine years old, and I committed my life to Christ.  That was the first time.  He was career Air Force, so we moved around some, which is both good and bad.

While living in Hampton, Virginia, I began attending a Methodist church with one of my best childhood friends, Matt Kennell.  It was 1974, so the Methodists hadn’t gotten around to ordaining homosexuals or lobbying congress for abortion rights.  It was a pretty good, fundamentalist type of church.  But our youth group leader, Tom Baird, was a tongue talker.  He was an infantry captain with two tours in Vietnam under his belt, built like a rock, soft spoken, and not like anybody else that I had ever known.  His relationship with Christ was infectious.  It was that of a man’s man with the Captain of the heavenly host; somehow His strength showed through in Tom’s gentleness.  I wanted that.  It’s been nearly forty years, but his influence on me is still there.   Matt and I were straight laced and caused our parents little grief.  I read the Bible daily, and believed it.  Dad was glad that I was moral, but worried; he didn’t want me to be a fanatic.

At fifteen, we moved to Montgomery, Alabama.  I didn’t adjust well, and had no friends.  I remember making a choice.  I decided that the loneliness had to go, and that meant going along with the crowd, which meant sex, drugs, and rock and roll.  We still went to church, but my heart was dark.  Along the way, I learned to play bass guitar and six string guitar.  I was in a band, and having fun.  But, as these things often go, the alcohol and dope took control.  My friends and I maintained good grades, worked, and didn’t cause problems (much).   It was a series of decisions that radically altered my future, and not in a good way.

After graduating in the top ten percent of my class, I went to college, but only stayed for a year.  Too much alcohol and dope (I never met a drug that I didn’t like) put me in the Navy.  It was a nuclear field, which was still promising.  True to form, I wrecked my car with a quarter of a pound of pot in it.  I left the scene, dumped the weed, and went to jail.  So much for nuclear power.  I graduated Machinist’s Mate A School, and went to the Atlantic fleet as a conventional snipe.

This was 1980, and urinalysis was not a normal event.  Smoking pot was the regular pastime for the enlisted men on my frigate.  I looked around at my colleagues and decided that, if I outperformed them, I would be free to stay drunk or stoned, which worked OK for awhile.  Then I got busted for being drunk on duty, which caused them to do a blood test, and they found downers in my blood.  I lost a stripe.  We had a rock band made up of five guys on my ship, and we lived in a house together.  One night, I dropped a couple of hits of acid.  It went very, very badly for me.   The next day, I knew that I was out of control, and I desperately needed Jesus back in my life.

There was a Christian on my ship named Danny Muldoon, so I found him and told him that I wanted to get right with God.  I began attending church with him at a fellowship called Kingdom Ministries.   KM people lived in close proximity to each other, and had a house for young men.  I stayed there on the weekends, and liked it.  We were doing the best that we knew to do, and I fully committed my time and money to serving the Lord through the Ministry.  For a few years, it was great.  We had a coffee house, and sponsored concerts there and at the local college.   I played with the worship team, and sometimes on the street.  We took in people that were homeless or down and out, and published a newspaper.   It was very, very good, but didn’t stay that way.

Kingdom Ministries’ preacher was Ron Gatrelle.  Ron was sharp, charismatic, and knew the scriptures as well as any man I’ve ever known.   The best thing that I received from Ron was a thorough understanding that Jesus is God.  Think Pentecostal Holiness, apostolic doctrine.  The level of control that was exerted was high.  Holiness preachers tend to try to make the flesh sinless.  It’s a vicious circle, and leads to despair.  Along the way, I got out of the Navy and got a job in an auto parts factory.

So now I was 23, KM houses were mostly common purse, and the young were told not to get married or pursue education.  It was not workable for me.  For instance, saving any money showed a lack of faith.  I gave away my $3000 tax refund, then my car needed an engine rebuild.  Debt was also bad, so how does that work?  The leadership was considered unquestionable, so there was no recourse if things went awry, which they did.  Not to put too fine a point on it, but it became obvious that some in the leadership were involved sexually with the women.  I went to the elders and was rebuffed.  By then I had eloped with a girl that came in through our Crisis Pregnancy Center and adopted her kids, so we left the church.

I was just messed up.  My wife was a free spender and a compulsive liar; I was working way too much, and went back to drinking.  No excuses; it was plainly a walk away from Christ.  Free will is a bummer, sometimes.  All of the problems that accompany drunkenness fell on me.  If God loves you, He’ll reel you back in.

He did, too.  New Year’s day of 1996 I rolled my truck.  My left arm was amputated two inches above the elbow. I came out of it briefly in the ambulance, saw the guy working on me, and thought, “Man that is one ugly dude.”  Then I saw the tourniquet on my arm and reality hit.  I was dying.  I was about to meet the resurrected King of Glory face to face, and I knew the outcome.  Absolute terror overtook me, and I screamed.  Some prayers aren’t very ecclesiastical.  God is the God of all mercy, ready to pardon and heal.   He heard that dying man’s prayer.  They said I was going to die, even stamped my records DOA.  I’m still here.

My boss and my manager came to see me, and said that I still had my job.  The insurance money came in, and so did my wife’s new boyfriend.  Right there in my house.  I asked the cops to remove him, but my soon-to-be-ex-wife said that he had paid rent, so they said it would take thirty days to evict him.  I moved out.  She got pregnant, and I’d had a vasectomy.  In the divorce, she got almost all of the money, two houses, full custody, all of the furniture, and child support.  She and my kids moved a thousand miles away, and I became a walking dead man.

One day, I decided to get drunk on the porch instead of in the apartment.  Step one accomplished.  Then I decided to go to church.  I got stoned, went in a few minutes late, and sat with the deaf people.  Deaf people don’t talk to you.  Then I left early, so nobody could shake my hand.  And so it went.  This may not set well with some, but the Holy Spirit will meet you right where you are.  He met me in worship, and He still does.  He met me when I was stoned and still drinking, chasing women, and in wild rebellion.  He didn’t wait for me to get cleaned up, but, instead, He came to me in my despair.

My back was injured in the wreck, so I started working out in a gym to strengthen it.  That’s where I met the love of my life.   Lovely Lisa, God’s gift to me.  We got married and fought like alley cats for several years.  I was still drinking a lot.  We went to marriage classes at church, which helped.  We got involved in a home fellowship which subsequently became our church.  It grew over time, and I knew that we needed a pastor, and structure.  God answered my prayer and sent Ricky Eutsler.  He could sing, he could preach, his doctrine was sound, and my fellowship just fell apart.  Lisa and I began attending Ricky’s home church.

Things fell apart again, largely because of my inability to trust anybody.  The Bible teaches that there is an authority structure in the church.  I understood it, but could not accept it.  Once burned, twice shy.  We didn’t just leave, we slandered Ricky.  I was still drinking a lot.

I went to jail because of a domestic dispute, and came out with a restraining order against me.  Lisa asked Rick if I could stay with him, and he said OK.  It was one of the kindest, most Christ-like things anybody ever did for me.  Through divine action, the charges were dropped, Lisa and I were reunited, and I no longer drank at all.  If Rick stuck his thumb in my eye, I’d figure that I must need a thumb in my eye.  He wasn’t just preaching love and mercy, he was living it, and I saw Christ in action.

The gospel is the good news of peace with God, and peace among men.  Finding out that salvation is by His gift of faith working in me, His love working outward through me, His gift of repentance allowing me to return when I stray, and a simple command to tell others, with no responsibility for the outcome, has liberated me.  Jesus Christ rules by right, not by might only.  He is the Warrior Prince, the answer we all instinctively seek.  Come as you are.